How NOT to be a Responsible Member of a Paddle Group
June 1996, Issue Number 113 California Kayak Friends
by Howard Rishel
America is a land of individuals. "Cowboys" some might call us. We are taught from an early age to be self-reliant and responsible for our own actions, but never mind anyone else. So it should come as no surprise that when we are asked to be cooperative, responsible members of a group, most of us don't see any need to change our behavior or act any differently at all.
The result is that when you get a group of kayakers together, usually what you have is an assembly of individual captains of individual ships, where each is acting entirely on his own agenda. Each will go where he wants to go, at the speed he wants to go, and each is perfectly comfortable with every other boat also "doing its own thing." The would-be "leader" of such an assemblage is forced to decide between (1) also going his own way (let the rest do what they will), (2) becoming a berserk "control freak" trying to keep the group together, and/or (3) vowing never again to lead a group of kayakers - or at least not without being really well paid for it. This sort of thing may explain why not everyone is clamoring to be the "host" of a paddle trip.
But far be it from me to attempt to undermine the independent ideals which have made this country great! I'd rather be on the winning side. What we need to do is make sure that those occasional impulses (and admit it, we all have them), to look to see what the rest of the group is doing or to stick with a slower boat so they won't be alone, these frivolous impulses must be stifled and stamped out each and every time they arise!
We should not encourage our paddling individuals to act as "responsible members of a group." That would be getting just way too close to "cooperation". And we all know where that sort of thing can lead to. (Eastern Europe is still getting over its experiment in "cooperation".)
So in the interest of minimizing any inclination towards responsible group activity, I have compiled a list. Each and every truly independent paddler should do his or her best not to do any of the following:
1.Stick together. Always be with at least 1 other person/boat, especially if you are at the front or the back. There can be hazards on the water or the land at any point in a trip.
2.Pay attention to the group. Look around frequently to be sure that you can see everyone and that no-one needs your help. People seldom give advance warning before they get into trouble. If you hear a whistle (or air horn), find out who needs your attention and then blow your whistle in reply (we may need to change direction or there may actually be an emergency). Even if you think you know "the plan" it probably will change, so look to see what the rest of the group is doing. A vertical paddle means regroup NOW. If you are alone or in a small group and everyone else is in a large group, this means that you should go to where they are AND they should wait for you to arrive. If you are at the front and the group is getting too spread out, stop and let everyone catch up (the people in the back will bless you). If you are at the front and are about to go around a curve, stop and let the rest catch up before you disappear from view (we could have a change of plans or need your help and you would not even know it).
3.In exploring "on your own", do not break rule 1, AND make sure the "host" knows where you are going and when you will be back. We don't want to start a rescue search too early or too late. AND we don't want to slow up the group waiting for you when you are with others and are perfectly capable of catching up. Don't expect the rest of the group to be sitting around waiting for you when you return. Even if you thought you knew what the group would be doing while you were gone, it was your idea to go exploring and break contact with the group, so it is up to you to find them, not the other way around. If you are out exploring (probably where you can't see the rest of the group) and you hear an air horn blast, start timing and listen for another. An air horn blast once each minute for a total of 3 blasts means come back and regroup NOW.
Although most of this list has to do with group behavior while on the water, it is also important that we remain fierce individuals on the land. If the trip includes camping or hiking, we should continue being oblivious to the needs of those around us. If someone has forgotten to bring something important or is having difficulty with their equipment, we should not embarrass them by offering our assistance. A true individual does not deprive others of their independence. Our primary concern should be that we ourselves are comfortable and have everything that we may require. Only by being true individuals ourselves can we show proper respect and regard for the independent nature of our fellow travelers.
OK, I give up! I've pulled your leg and tried your patience long enough! But I hope by my sarcasm that I've gotten your attention. The truth is that we all need to learn to be more helpful, more responsible paddling group members (myself included). And no, I am not bitter, and yes I do intend to lead more paddling trips. But it is partly because this that I think we all need to try harder in this area. So think about it next time you're in a group. Remember that if we want more people to volunteer to lead trips, we all must do our best as group members. And please DO follow the "list" I've included above. If you have a different list, please share it with the rest of us. We really do all need more education in this area.